Version tested: Xbox 360
You can't swing a chainsaw bayonet in a video game these days without hitting a choice that has consequences for you further down the line. The last three games I completed ended in "kill him or don't kill him" showdowns, and most of the stuff on my wish list for the rest of the year will test my moral compass as much as my dexterity.
If you ask me, at some stage we are going to have to consider the consequences of our choosing nothing but games about nothing but choice and consequence. In the meantime, a game like Bastion, which blurs the line between agency and fate in new and interesting ways, is rather welcome.
Bastion is an isometric action role-playing game where you pick up the pieces after an apocalyptic event - called the Calamity - which has splintered the beautiful lands of Caelondia into floating fragments in the sky and filled them with angry critters. It's your job, as a hero known only as The Kid, to discover what happened by picking through ashes and memories with a range of increasingly devastating weaponry.
The game has two neat gimmicks. The first gimmick is that your actions are accompanied throughout by the throaty narration of a wise old man (wonderfully voiced by a chap called Logan Cunningham), who mixes soulful commentary on the tortured world around you with weary observations about The Kid's weaponry and behaviour in the game, wheezing poetry into your motion.
For the second gimmick, which you encounter right after you wake up on a platform in the sky at the start of the game, we might as well quote the old man: "The ground starts to form up under him as if leading the way. He don't stop to wonder why."
As you venture through the steampunk fantasy platforms of stricken Caelondia, the old man's commentary and the way your pathway through the clouds rises up beneath you quickly become incidental details that add depth and texture to your activities, and neither is without poignancy or symbolism.
You can leave the contemplation for later, though, because beneath (or perhaps above) this artifice lurks simple and elegant hack-and-slash combat that requires most of your attention. Initially using a hammer, a bow, a shield and a whirling dervish style special move - your arsenal grows to encompass everything from a spear and a machete to a pair of duelling pistols and even a mortar, while special attacks include tripmines and a hand grenade - you have to hack up critters and angry flora while you hunt for six cores, pieces of rock that will restore the Bastion.
The Bastion, to which you return between levels, is the hub of your activities, and each core allows you to build a different structure to manage everything from your weapons loadout and upgrades to secondary objectives. The Kid embodies the game's aesthetic - strong, silent, with a touch of the Old West about him - and this is reflected in the things he builds and their functions, like a Distillery where you accumulate potions and liquor that act as passive modifiers in combat. Everything you touch is narrated by the old man - named Rucks - who will growl knowingly about how a whale tonic ain't made from whales, but might make you as tough as one.
The gameplay rhythm that you soon settle into is quite simple. You use a skybridge to head out into the world in search of the cores, return to the Bastion to build something, and maybe pick up a survivor, a new tool or some interesting information along the way. But there are lovely touches throughout that prevent this slipping into dull repetition, including little trinkets you can gather back to the hub like a gramophone that lets you play back any of the beautiful soundtrack - southern guitar textured with eastern strings - at your considerable leisure. (I'm still humming some of it now.)
Out in the world, Rucks paints each beautiful level with a layer of narrative varnish that complements the action wonderfully. He introduces one battleground by noting that the enemies you encounter early on aren't the worst of its secrets, returning to the theme later to introduce the real bad guy in a manner that ties the whole sequence together and gives it an intuitive sense of scale. Of course, Rucks' narration can only be spread so thin over each area, and this seems to have inspired the designers to keep each level short and interesting, changing pace and direction in numerous ways that keep you guessing and would each be a sin to spoil.
For players wishing to wring more than the five or six hours it takes to complete the Story mode, there are proving grounds, side objectives and other ways to modify the experience to increase the challenge and unlock more interesting rewards. There's also a New Game Plus mode that allows you to continue levelling The Kid and revisit old locations with a greater sense of the game's meaning and the nature of the Calamity - something that the developers, Supergiant Games, resolve with impressive poise and elegance.
Where Bastion lets itself down slightly, though, is in the combat that makes up so much of the game. Your arsenal is as tough, diverse and engaging as the places you visit, and the modifiers and special abilities offer a great range of strategic options. But the enemies you encounter don't rise to the challenge, frequently just spamming you with increasing numbers, extra spawn points, area-of-effect attacks and storms of projectiles rather than fighting you in ways that invite experimentation and get you excited about going into combat. For a game where you spend so much of your time hacking and slashing, that's a disappointing revelation.
Once the dust settles on The Kid's journey, though, you are still likely to want to return for another: listening out for deeper meaning in Rucks' narration, storming through previously tough areas with a meatier arsenal, soaking up details you didn't linger on previously. Any concerns you had are likely to be drowned out in wistful hindsight by the dazzling visuals, artful commentary and moving score that made up your adventure.
Bastion may have you tugging at its threads to decipher your role and meaning, even as you return for a second go-round - but you're unlikely to question the choice you made to buy it.
8 / 10